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Bemus Point Mayor Backs Bills To Help Fire Departments

BEMUS POINT — The village’s top elected official is backing a series of bills in the state Legislature meant to help local fire departments with the crush of emergency medical service calls and a shrinking volunteer base.

Mayor Jeff Molnar expressed support for the legislation and has called on state Sen. George Borrello to further push for changes at the state level.

Molnar, a member of the Bemus Point Fire Department, heralded efforts by the New York State Association of Counties that worked with state lawmakers and advocates to bring forth what it’s calling a “Rescue EMS” package.

It includes six bills that would, if signed into law, allow special taxing districts to be created to fund EMS services; remove EMS services from the real property tax cap, which would allow local municipalities to expand and better support their local EMS services; allow volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers to claim both state income and local property tax credits; increase the personal income tax credit for volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers from $200 to $800 for eligible individuals and from $400 to $1,600 for eligible married joint filers; and create a methodology for ambulance reimbursement under Medicaid that more closely approximates the cost of providing the service.

Molnar stressed the need for any assistance that may help local fire departments.

“When I first joined a volunteer fire department in New York state in 1975, people were lining up to serve,” the mayor said in a letter to Borrello pushing for the passage of the six association-backed bills. “Today, things are very different in the volunteer world and, as you know, many organizations, fraternal clubs and nonprofits have encountered the same membership erosion, or worse, have closed their doors, like many volunteer fire departments and ambulance corps across the nation.”

The New York State Association of Counties said it worked in collaboration with state legislators and EMS providers to craft the legislative package, which was announced Jan. 30. The association said the bills provide local governments with the authority to create and fund countywide EMS services, provide financial incentives for EMS workers to enter and stay in the field, and update Medicaid reimbursement rates to reflect current needs and costs.

“All across the state, local EMS providers are in crisis due to rising costs and high demand for increasingly complex services,” association president Daniel McCoy said in a news release. “Counties are being asked to fill growing gaps in EMS services, but they lack the resources and authority to develop county-wide systems. We’ve heard our counties’ concerns loud and clear.

“Through close collaboration of our partners in the legislature and the industry, we’ve developed a package of reforms that provide counties with the flexibility they need to ensure that when one of our residents calls for help, they can count on faster, more reliable, lifesaving service.”

In Bemus Point, Molnar said its fire department has a handful of active members who provide basic EMS care. Overall, he said the department has about 30 active members to respond to fire calls.

For two years, Molnar served as chairman of the Chautauqua County Legislature Fire Advisory Board. In his direct appeal to Borrello, he pointed to the creation of Chautauqua County EMS, which provides advanced life support in the form of paramedics who respond in sport utility vehicles directly to scenes in support of fire departments.

“It was a long time coming, but the implementation of the Chautauqua County EMS system — starting with fly cars — has taken us off of life support, thanks to the leadership in our county,” Molnar said. “However, the decline still exists and it is not going to go away.”

He noted that “members (of fire departments) are aging, like me.” There’s also mounds of training to become a volunteer required by the state that Molnar described as “overwhelming and lengthy.”

And, despite state-sponsored recruitment drives to bolster membership, the mayor said new volunteers are few and far between.

All of this, Molnar told Borrello, is resulting in “poorer outcomes for patients.”

TAKING STEPS

New York state has taken recent steps to help struggling departments.

In 2022, the EMS Cost Recovery Act was included in the state budget signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul. Until that point, New York had been the only state in the U.S. that didn’t allow fire departments to bill insurers for the cost of providing emergency medical care.

Under previous law, only volunteer ambulance corps and private ambulance companies could bill.

Though long championed by fire officials statewide, the EMS Cost Recovery Act created new challenges at the county and municipal level. Fire departments that only provided basic life support were now required to contract with an agency that provided advanced life support, such as Chautauqua County EMS and Alstar EMS.

“Essentially, the new law puts us all in a situation where, based on estimated costs for contracted ALS intercept fees, we would no longer be able to sustain our ambulance operation,” Molnar recently told village residents. “Current revenue from property fire taxes, chicken barbecues, gun raffles and donations from annual fund drives would no longer support the expense of medical supplies, fuel and repairs, ALS intercept charges, and not to mention the replacement of a $500,000 ambulance every so often.”

In September 2022, the county announced a flat $250 fee to fire departments that had not yet established its own billing system. The fee was charged anytime a paramedic with Chautauqua County EMS responded as mutual aid to an EMS call.

“We were charged those fees, and we absorbed those costs,” Molnar told constituents. “This came with the caveat that this rate could change or be eliminated at any time, at their discretion, based on CCEMS system’s fiscal health.”

Bemus Point, as have many local fire departments that have ambulances, recently partnered with a third-party company to handle its EMS billing.

“This was the only option to keep us viable, within the law, in order to continue to serve you, our community,” the Bemus Point mayor said.

He added, “We are faced with more regulations, longer and more intense training requirements and increasing costs for equipment and more frequent repairs. Due to societal changes and the need for both family members to work, participation is down and recruitment is almost non-existent We continue to rely on an aging membership to do more in a wider area assisting other departments who cannot muster a crew.”

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